Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Why Haven't E-books Met Their Promise?

When electronic books were first being developed for law school purposes, I saw a lot of promise. Lexis-Nexis had some very creative people and let them develop some very good adjuncts to the electronic casebooks that I saw shown. You could highlight in your casebook, and make notes in the margins. You could tie your classnotes to the text. It looked very interesting. But it failed. Why?

It wasn't for lack of adoption by professors -- I knew some professors who adopted the e-case books, that were packaged with print and a CD for students to slide into their laptop to bring to class. No more lugging heavy books to school! Why did such a terrific-sounding idea fall flat?

I have linked the title above to a study done in 2001 in California, about what it would take for e-books to succeed in academic settings. As far as I can see the publishers have not moved on any of the bullet points. That's too bad, since they apply as much to electronic databases as to e-books! Pay attention out there.

I. Problems with Flexibility of the Hardware and Software
* Non-proprietary software and hardware for interoperability of files
E-book readers and librarians alike need to have software and hardware that is flexible. Don't make the classic mistake that Apple made of tying everything to one platform and them not letting anybody write for your system. Make it all apply to any platform, any system, and let that be the standard. Only then, will the whole system take off.

* Identifiers
* Metadata
These two work together to make the data work together on any system. It makes the software portable. We don't want to have to purchase and carry around your clunky brand of reader. Let us read it on our PDAs or laptops or whatever.

* ADA compliance.
Duh. Metadata helps make electronic material accessible to screen readers for vision-impaired readers. There are lots of other small steps that make a big difference to our many users who need accessibility compliance.

II. Problems with Digital Rights Management
Time to get with the program, guys. E-books and digital libraries will never get off the launch pad until you get your minds around the concept that libraries need to be able to spend the same amount for the same rights as before. Our budgets are not getting bigger. Our patrons need the same or more research support as before. We are happy to work with you and understand that you need to maintain a business; we want to help you protect your copyrights. Please help us maintain our business of supporting our patrons' research need and protecting our institutions' financial solvency! It will help nobody for us to fight each other or drive each other to ruin.

III. Access and Archiving and Cost Models
Again, this goes somewhat to solving the problem with digital rights management. But e-books and digital libraries will never be successful until instant, constant and anywhere access is there for the patron. It should be platform independent, it should be portable, and it should be easy to use, intuitive. And as a librarian, I want to keep the access I paid for, doggone it. If you charge me the cost of the book, I want to keep the book's worth on my digital shelf. If you charge me a month's worth of subscription, I want that the first to the last issue's worth on my shelf, permanently readable by all my patrons.

IV. Privacy
Some electronic vendors are selling information from searches (can you imagine?). This should be unthinkable.

I really recommend you go and read this report in full. I am merely noting my personal pet peeves that the report underscores in this blog note. This nice image is courtesy of the Health Sciences Library at University of Pittsburgh. Thanks!

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